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Life stories

Orth Contemporary makes art personal

Katie Orth, owner and founder of Orth Contemporary art gallery

Valerie Grant

After 11 years as a director at the M.A. Doran gallery on Brookside, Katie Orth struck out on her own last May to open Orth Contemporary (20 S. Lewis Ave.) in Kendall-Whittier. In the thick of the down-to-earth bustle of the neighborhood, the gallery is a slice of tart elegance. But Orth, who tears up talking about the art and artists who call her space home, isn’t your stereotypical gallerista.

Alicia Chesser: How did you get into this line of work?

Katie Orth: I signed up for an internship at a gallery in San Francisco and it turned into a job. I did that for five years, then came to Tulsa. I kind of knew that eventually I’d want to do it on my own. We all have a different way of seeing, a different voice. There’s a space for everybody. So far it’s been the best time of my life.

The art business is hard. There’s not a large number of collectors out there. A lot of people will spend money on cars and houses and trips, but an investment in art is not a priority. But art changes your life if you let it. I don’t think I would be alive today without art. It’s uplifting. It educates. It teaches you to slow down and look.

Chesser: Why did you decide to land in Kendall-Whittier?

Orth: It’s been a gamble, but I think I made the right choice. First of all, it was affordable! And there’s a lot of creativity down here. Circle Cinema has the best movies you can’t see in any other theater. Talmadge Powell is a great studio down the street. I knew Marjorie Atwood and the Urban Art Lab had spaces here. People are in their studios working down here. There’s that energy in the air already. I’m showing work,
and they’re making work. It’s interesting.

We’re starting an art walk around the neighborhood, from the Circle on to the photography and print studios and on and on, so people can see creativity in action.  People usually just see the output in various places around Tulsa, but it’s happening here.

Chesser: How do you choose what to show?

Orth: My focus is to represent up to 10 artists. I’m at seven right now. As a gallery owner, you want to work with artists who affect your life in a positive way. The artists I’ve chosen so far [among them Tulsa Artist Fellow Eric Sall, former MTV VJ Tabitha Soren, and Rosemarie Fiore, who works in fireworks and smoke]—their processes are all different, all compelling. Everybody here has a different process they came to through their own life story. A lot of these stories you’ll remember for the rest of your life once you hear them.

Chesser: What is the relationship like with the artists you represent?

Orth: It’s work that doesn’t feel like work. The artists love what they do and let me be part of that. To have this job, to be able to invite people like this into my life and have them say yes—I feel like the luckiest person out there. I like to showcase one artist at a time so they can have their voice heard clearly. They know I represent a small number so they’re never going to be shoved in the racks and not looked at ever. They’re my little family.

My focus is getting these artists to the next level in their career. I hope to get every one of them in a museum collection. Henry Jackson [whose paintings are featured in the gallery’s current show] was my first. I know I’ll lose some of them in time, but that means I did it right. Everybody here deserves to be the next Chuck Close.

Chesser: A lot of the art world just seems like hype. What you’re cultivating is a really personal approach to making art part of people’s lives.

Orth: You have to follow and collect and make what you love. Designer things aren’t going to affect your life, your emotions, like art will. It’s almost like re-wiring us to come out of that trendy lifestyle and see what creativity can do.

There’s a soulfulness to this work that sticks with you. Sometimes I just lie on the floor in here and stare at it. I’ve never been able to meditate like you’re supposed to, but I can look at art, do it that way, and be elevated.

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